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Ebell Society Dresses for Turn of a Century : Event: O.C.'s oldest women's club fashions an anniversary celebration from its rich log of guests and members.


SANTA ANA — Celebrating guest appearances that have ranged from Amelia Earhart to Mr. Blackwell, Orange County's oldest women's club marked its 100th anniversary on Sunday.

Members of the Ebell Society of the Santa Ana Valley also stepped into the past and portrayed their predecessors at the event held in the society's 70-year-old clubhouse on French Street in Santa Ana.

Some checked their identities at the door and wandered about the old Spanish-style clubhouse in costume as they played their characters. Others wore authentic vintage dresses that had belonged to past Ebell members.

On stage in the clubhouse auditorium, members re-enacted highlights from the history of the society.

Jeanne Williams sported a 1940s rust-colored gown with a jeweled neckline that belonged to her grandmother, Ruth Segerstrom, an Ebell past president (1947-1949). The dress was one of a half-dozen on loan from the Segerstrom collection.

"In those days the Ebell Society was the thing to belong to--it was very elegant," said Ruth Ann Moriarty, Williams' mother and Segerstrom's daughter.

Edith Lyon, club president, wore a turn-of-the-century navy gown to portray Amanda Blee, the group's original first vice president and Santa Ana's first telegrapher.

"We moved to Santa Ana in 1937, and she lived across the street from us," Lyon said. "I used to visit her in her parlor as a little girl. She'd talk to me while sitting in her rocking chair--but I don't remember a thing she said."

Lyon's mother, Edna, was also an Ebell president. In 1945, at age 42, she was the youngest woman ever elected to the post. Marilyn Blackwood (who in 1983 was the second-youngest president), portrayed Edna Lyon, wearing her original navy and lace gown.

"Edna's goal would have been to see this day," Blackwood said. "This club has had an important place in the community. For a long time it was the only educational, cultural and social outlet for women."

All of the characters took turns parading on stage while narrator Maureen Rischard, a club member since 1950, recounted the club's history.

The first meeting took place Nov. 16, 1894, when 23 women met in the home of Mrs. J.R. Medlock. Named after a doctor who founded the society in Oakland, the Ebell society was designed to provide women with educational and social opportunities.

While on stage most members pretended to sip tea or play cards--two enduring club pastimes--but some got into the spirit of their characters. As Lorita Baker Vallely, a dynamic guest speaker from 1950, member Gloria Turtenwald took her role seriously, pretending to mouth an entire speech complete with exaggerated facial expressions.

Allan Cole played Mr. Blackwell, the caustic fashion critic who, in his 1978 visit to the club, admonished member Betty Regan (played with relish by Dorothy Hurd) to cover her knees with her coat.

Evelyne Andrick played Anne Sullivan to Lenora Homyer's Helen Keller. The famous teacher and her blind and deaf pupil visited the club in 1914. Josephine Alleman sported a bomber jacket and flight goggles to play Amelia Earhart, who spoke to the group in 1935.

In 1967, Ebell could boast of 1,281 members. Now membership stands at about 250--the result of women entering the work force and not having enough time to join clubs. Annual dues have grown from $1.20 (10 cents per month) to $100 to help pay for insurance, clubhouse upkeep and activities. Still, the club's remaining members are devoted to the society.

"It's the only club where women can come, play cards and just enjoy fellowship," said Marjorie Fluor Moore, a member since 1959. "For women, this is a haven."

Cast members included Stella Dodge (in an 1894 brocade cape and authentic pin tuck skirt from the Segerstrom collection), Virginia Russell, Mildred Fleck, Ruth Badger (as 1894 pianist Coralinn Rice), Laura Garthe, Opal Kissinger (as Madame Modjeska, who visited Ebell in 1905), Karen Reese, LaVerne Laskey, Jean Baez, Carol Smith, Barbara Schmid, Frances Laster and Vito Pulati (as violinist Murray Korda).

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